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12/22/2004
03:59 PM
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It's The End Of The Road For Windows NT

After Dec. 31, Microsoft will no longer provide general support for Windows NT Server 4.0, marking the end of an era.

The clock is winding down on Windows NT, the operating system that propelled Microsoft into the computer server market 11 years ago. The last day Microsoft will provide general support for Windows NT Server 4.0 is Dec. 31, after which companies need custom contracts if they want the safety of Microsoft security fixes and other help.

The Windows NT brand was launched in July 1993 with the introduction of Windows NT 3.1, followed by Windows NT 3.5, Windows NT 3.51, and Windows NT 4.0 The operating system became so popular that year-over-year sales were growing at 150% about the time Windows NT Server 4.0 was introduced in August 1996. With the leading market share for server operating systems today, Microsoft's success started with Windows NT.

"NT was a very important crossroads for Microsoft," says IDC analyst Al Gillen. "It was the transitional product that brought Microsoft from the desktop to the server side."

Now, nearly eight years after it was first deployed by companies such as Continental Airlines and General Motors, Windows NT 4.0 lacks the newer features of Windows 2000, Windows XP, and Windows Server 2003. So Microsoft is decommissioning its old workhorse. Come Jan. 1, businesses will no longer be able count on Microsoft to issue the software patches that keep Windows NT Server 4.0 protected and otherwise up to date. Microsoft support for Windows NT Workstation 4.0 expired at the end of June.

"It's difficult, if not impossible, to ensure the security of this platform in all cases," explains Peter Houston, senior director of Windows serviceability. "There are classes of vulnerabilities that have emerged that NT 4.0 was never designed to address from a serviceability perspective." Microsoft will release bug fixes for Windows NT 4.0 only if there's a "Blaster class" security vulnerability with far-reaching risks, Houston says. "Those would be very, very rare events," he says.

Not everyone will make Microsoft's cut-off date. IDC estimates Windows NT will still account for 17% of the installed base of all Windows servers at the end of 2004. And millions of Windows NT workstations remain in use, too. Houston urges companies to replace remaining Windows NT systems as quickly as possible. "You should begin your migrations immediately," he says.

Software tools and how-to guides are available from Microsoft to help customers with Windows NT 4.0 upgrades. For businesses that can't make the deadline, Microsoft will negotiate custom contracts to provide ongoing support, but Houston says such contracts are aimed at Microsoft's largest business customers, not small and midsize companies, and he declined to say how much they cost. Earlier this month, Microsoft said it would continue to support Windows NT 4.0 under custom contracts through 2006; it had planned to stop even custom support at the end of 2005.

New Technology
Windows NT got its name, in part, from the "new technology" in the 32-bit operating system, which was designed for client-server networks. But NT had a second meaning, too. When development work began in November 1988, Windows NT was targeted for the Intel i860 chip code-named N10. Within Microsoft, NT also referred to the N-Ten simulator system on which the development team ran the first NT code.

Microsoft's server operating system gained popularity because it was relatively easy to deploy and had the familiar look of the Windows desktop operating system. "It didn't require the level of expertise needed for Unix," says Paul Sundling, a computer consultant in Burbank, Calif., who worked with Microsoft's operating system at the University of California at Los Angeles and at Enterworks Inc., a software company.

Yet, as a first-generation platform, Windows NT also lacked the reliability, scalability, and manageability that often was required of a system supporting companywide business processes. "I remember having to schedule weekly reboots so the departmental server wouldn't crash during business hours," Sundling says via E-mail.

For Tim Mickey, manager of IT with Gaedeke Group, a real-estate company, something as common as upgrading Windows NT from a single-processor server to two processors could be a "big pain." He recalls being forced to troubleshoot when, during an upgrade, Windows NT failed to recognize the necessary hardware abstraction layer DLL (dynamic link library). With Microsoft's newer Windows Server 2003, he writes in a message, "I just popped [a second processor] in and turned it on."

Microsoft's pricing for a standard edition of Windows server has held steady over the past eight years. Windows NT Server 4.0's list price was $1,129, including a 10-user license. Today, Windows Server 2003 costs $70 more for the same number of users.

Despite the phaseout of Windows NT 4.0, some of the operating system's code was carried over into Windows 2000, released in 2000, and more recently into Windows Server 2003. So, although Windows NT has reached the end of the line, its legacy will continue for years to come.

This story was modified on Aug. 2 to correct hardware abstraction layer.

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